The Cook and the Bear will open this summer in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square.
By Ronni Newton
Millwright’s chef-owner Tyler Anderson had wanted to open a barbecue restaurant in the Hartford area for several years, he said, but once he tasted Jamie McDonald’s pit barbecue, he knew he didn’t want to compete.
“He’s too good at it,” Anderson said.
In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” two of the area’s top restaurateurs are now officially joining forces to open a place that already has West Hartford foodies buzzing. The Cook and the Bear will open this summer in Blue Back Square, at the corner of Memorial Road and Raymond Road in the former Counter Burger/Pearl’s Grill space.
Anderson, a James Beard award nominee and owner of Simsbury’s upscale Millwright’s, has been committed to working with other area chefs in collaborative farm dinners and other events throughout the area. McDonald, a Kansas City native whose Bear’s Smokehouse has quickly gained popularity in the Hartford area over the past three years, became one of Anderson’s collaborators.
Rich Rochlin has been Anderson’s attorney for years and helped with the business end of setting up Millwright’s. When he tasted McDonald’s barbecue, back when it was only available at a counter in Windsor, he knew that Anderson and McDonald needed to work together.
“[McDonald] finally agreed to have dinner with me at Millwright’s,” said Rochlin. That meeting paved the way for future collaboration.
“We just worked together well and decided to try a pop-up at Millwright’s,” said Anderson. “The Cook and the Bear,” held on Monday nights at Millwright’s, a time when many restaurants are closed, was born last August.
The Cook and the Bear was an immediate success, and Anderson said they soon started looking for permanent space in West Hartford.
“Blue Back Square is a central location. The foot traffic can’t be beat,” Anderson said. He’s excited about the opening of the Delamar West Hartford Hotel next year as well, and excited to be close to other great West Hartford restaurants.
The concept of the Cook and the Bear is: “What if a chef and a barbecue pitmaster get together?” said Anderson. The food will be casual, with the farm fresh ingredients Millwright’s has been known for, but at at a price level that anyone can afford, he said.
“It will be barbecue with a ‘cheffy’ twist,” Anderson said. Menu items will include rotisserie chicken and fish, traditional sides like coleslaw and macaroni and cheese, and also some “healthy” and seasonal items like roasted carrots with quinoa and roasted fennel. Vegetarian offerings will include smoked tofu and smoked beets, he said.
“I know it sounds weird to do ‘health’ with barbecue, but we will be making good food, using locally sourced products,” said Anderson.
The cocktail program will be “huge,” Anderson said. “We want to have a lively bar, be a contributor to the Blue Back Square and Center nightlife,” he said. There will be a wide selection of craft beers, as many other area restaurants have, but the focus will be on unique cocktails that will emulate the style of the food.
“Having a talent like Aaron [Stepka] on board will allow us to do that,” Anderson said of his bar manager who recently returned to the area from a successful restaurant/bar career in the Los Angeles area.
Also unique will be the Cook and the Bear’s hours. Anderson said the restaurant will serve food late – at least until 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends – in hopes of having a space where others in the industry can come to eat after they close for the night.
The late night menu will feature items like ramen. Rochlin said ramen noodle bars have become a very popular part of the trendy New York City restaurant scene, and the Cook and the Bear’s ramen will be amazing. The broth, he said, will be made from the bones of the meat and chicken and the vegetables cooked all day and turned into an amazing ramen that you can only get at night because it takes all day to create.
There will also be Sunday – and Monday – brunch. Like the late night menu, the Monday brunch is intended to also attract those in the restaurant industry who often have that day off.
Cook and the Bear is planned for 102 seats, and Anderson hopes to gain approval for outdoor patio seating.
“We’re pushing for June but settling for July,” he said of the opening date.
Anderson said he will be very much involved in the menu creation, and plans to spend about 30 percent of his time in the West Hartford space. McDonald, who is also in the midst of embarking on plans to open a Bear’s Smokehouse location on Front Street and a kiosk in Union Square and at the Yard Goats stadium, will also split his time.
The day-to-day cooking will be handled by an “insane chef” whose name will be announced soon, Rochlin said.
“It’s a great marriage of gritty pit barbecue – which Jamie does well, and fine dining – which Tyler does well,” said Rochlin.
“People assume that if I’m involved it will be weird food or really expensive,” said Anderson. “We just really want to create a fun restaurant – a very unique and fun dining experience,” he said.
Rochlin said that demolition work on the existing space could start as soon as this week. Blue Back Square Marketing Director Elizabeth Zigmont said that she could not yet comment because although Cook and the Bear has signed the negotiated lease, Starwood has not yet signed off on it.
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